Oklahoma's largest newspaper must pay out a staggeringly large settlement to a sports broadcaster they wrongly identified as being a racist, it was announced on Tuesday.
The Oklahoman, the state's largest newspaper, was ordered by a jury to pay $25 million to Scott Sapulpa after they accused him of engaging in a racist tirade against high school basketball players.
The incident in question took place in March 2021, when players from the Norman High School girls basketball team "took the knee" in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the protest took place, audiences were astonished to hear one of the live commentators launch into a rant filled with racial slurs directed at the kneeling players.
"They’re kneeling? F**king n***ers. I hope Norman gets their ass kicked," one of the men was heard saying. "F**k them. I hope they lose. They’re gonna kneel like that?”
Amid the consequent outrage, The Oklahoman identified Sapulpa as the man who went on the racist tirade. However, it turned out to be his partner Matt Rowan. The paper says it corrected the story within two and a half hours.
Despite the relatively swift correction, Sapulpa filed a defamation lawsuit and was awarded $5 million in actual damages as well as a further $20 million in punitive damages.
His lawyer, Cassie Barkett, insisted her client endured immense suffering and damage to his reputation:
Sapulpa, once a respected teacher and coach, faced a barrage of threats, hate calls, and messages after the story was published and picked up by other media outlets, leading to his virtual termination from his position. The impact extended to Sapulpa’s personal life, forcing him to delete all social media accounts as his contact information went viral, resulting in further harassment.
A spokesperson for Gannett, the parent company that owns The Oklahoman, has confirmed it will appeal the decision:
Although we appreciate the jury’s hard work and diligence, we are disappointed with the verdict. There was no evidence presented to the jury that The Oklahoman acted with any awareness that what was reported was false or with any intention to harm the plaintiff in this case. Gannett intends to seek an appellate review of the case.
Matt Rowan, meanwhile, previously blamed his outburst on high blood sugar levels:
I will state that I suffer Type 1 Diabetes and during the game, my sugar was spiking. While not excusing my remarks, it is not unusual when my sugar spikes that I become disoriented and often say things that are not appropriate as well as hurtful.
I'm absolutely speechless for my rhetoric. I want to offer my deepest apologies to these girls because I hurt them. [The N-word] should never be thought much less muttered.
The case is reminiscent of that of Nicholas Sandmann, a teenage student at the Covington Catholic High School who in 2019 was slandered as racist by various media outlets following the viral video of his confrontation with a Native American activist during the March for Life rally in Washington, DC.
Just like Sapulpa, he ended up having the last laugh. After initiating a string of defamation lawsuits, Sandmann reached undisclosed settlements with numerous outlets, including CNN, NBC, and The Washington Post.